East Haven Police Blamed In $12 Million Verdict
A high school senior whose life was forever altered in 2006 when he was struck by a truck and thrown 20 feet in the air was awarded $12.2 million by a New Haven jury.
With interest stemming from an earlier settlement offer, the verdict will cost the town of East Haven $15.85 million. The plaintiff's lawyer, Michael Stratton of Stratton Faxon in New Haven, said the town's insurer was unaware of the suit until the trial started and did not intend to cover the verdict.
"It's a bad situation for the East Haven taxpayers," said Stratton.
East Haven police had detained the truck driver an hour earlier following a report of a domestic incident at a McDonald's restaurant. Police left the man's truck at McDonald's and drove him home to sober up. But after police drove off, the man walked the half-mile back to McDonald's for his truck.
Stratton said the police officers gave the man, Vlad Trnka, a break because they apparently knew him.
"It's a very outrageous thing to do," Stratton said. "They're willing to risk the public safety to do this private favor."
Personal injury lawsuits against municipalities are normally difficult to win. Public employees enjoy immunity from negligence claims in the normal course of their jobs. If an employee is using his discretion and makes a decision resulting in an accident, the town and the employee are shielded from liability. It's when an employee fails to perform a nondiscretionary—or ministerial—task that negligence claims can be made.
One of the lawyers for East Haven, Hugh Keefe of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, argued that the police officers made a discretionary decision in how to deal with Trnka.
"We think the evidence was pretty clear it was a discretionary act," said Keefe. "Therefore, there is no liability. It was an odd case because the guy who actually caused the accident was not a defendant and nobody called him to the stand."
It all started around midnight on Nov. 4, 2006, when a 911 dispatcher received a call from a woman in the drive-thru lane at an East Haven McDonald's. The woman complained that a man, who turned out to be Trnka, had driven up fast behind her and just missed a rear-end collision. The woman further said the man was shouting at a female passenger in the truck and appeared to be intoxicated or on drugs.
While the caller was still speaking with the dispatcher, Trnka punched a hole in the front windshield. The dispatcher told the woman to stay in the drive-thru line so Trnka could not get away. She stayed until an East Haven police officer arrived. Meanwhile, another police officer came over from a nearby bar.
Stratton said Trnka was driving a 1997 Chevrolet construction truck but the license plate was registered to a 1989 Ford truck. Keefe said police focused on the domestic incident and not on the truck's license plates. Whether or not they actually noticed this discrepancy became a key issue later in the case.
Stratton said the vehicle should have been towed and impounded but the officers decided to drive Trnka and the woman to their respective homes to sober up. After Trnka retrieved his truck from the McDonald's, he drove to the girlfriend's house and began throwing rocks at it. Trnka later claimed he needed to retrieve his cell phone from the woman. Stratton said the woman didn't respond.
Trnka then drove at high speed back to New Haven, where he lived. On Thompson Avenue, Trnka sideswiped a car that then-18-year-old Thomas Ventura was about to enter after leaving his girlfriend's home. Ventura was thrown 20 feet before landing on his head, Stratton said.
Stratton said Ventura suffered a small brain bleed and some cognitive impairments initially but no longer has any ill effects from the brain injury. The worst of his injuries were to his leg and abdominal area. He spent one month in the hospital after the accident.
In total, Ventura needed 10 surgeries to repair his injuries, including damage to his right leg and hip. His abdominal injury cut off blood flow to his testes, which required surgery to save. Ventura is now unable to have children.
A doctor testified that Ventura's leg injury was one of the worst he had ever seen. Doctors removed three inches of leg bone and installed an external fixator, a device that helps keep the bone from falling apart while letting the undamaged portion continue to grow. Ventura had to adjust the screws on the device himself, a painful undertaking.
"He can walk, talk … but he can't participate in any kind of sports," said Stratton. "He's looking at a lot of arthritis going forward."
Stratton said that Ventura had aspirations of going to college and possibly playing lacrosse at the collegiate level. But due to the accident, Ventura never went to college. He did, however, attend a technical institute and was trained as an electrician. He now works full time as a nursery manager at a Lowe's store.
Trnka did not stay at the accident scene. Police apprehended him a day later. He was convicted of evading responsibility and third-degree assault, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, suspended after 23 months.
Given the issues with the insurance and registration of the Trnka's truck, Stratton sued the town of East Haven under the ministerial exception to the public employee immunity doctrine. Stratton said fledgling officers are taught in the police academy that if they pull over a vehicle that has the wrong license plates on it, the vehicle should be towed and kept off of the streets until the situation is resolved. Failing to tow Trnka's truck violated that ministerial protocol, Stratton argued.
The attorney said one big challenge was to prove that the East Haven officers knew there was a problem with the license plates and chose not to do anything about it.
Stratton pointed to circumstantial evidence to prove police knew of the improper plates, including a notation on the police report that the truck involved in the incident was a Ford (the make of vehicle the plates were assigned to) instead of a Chevy, the actual vehicle involved.
Stratton also tried to impugn the officer's credibility by noting other errors in the report, including no mentions of the punched-out windshield, the 911 caller, and an incorrect name and address for Trnka's girlfriend.
The trial lasted 10 days, including jury selection, before New Haven Superior Court Judge Robin Wilson. Stratton, who had asked for $4 million during settlement talks, asked the jury during the trial for $12.3 million. They ultimately awarded $12.2 million.
Keefe made a motion for a directed verdict, which is still pending. Keefe also will file a motion to set aside the verdict.
"The plaintiff claimed the police should have towed the vehicle," said Keefe. "That would be a credible claim only if the police officers knew it was unregistered. They didn't know it was unregistered, uninsured."
Keefe said the verdict award of $12.2 million was brought by a "runaway jury."
He added, "I think they had a very sympathetic plaintiff who really did nothing wrong."
Stratton said the verdict "meant an awful lot" to him, given all the problems of the East Haven Police Department. A U.S. Justice Department investigation found that the department routinely targeted Hispanics. Two officers were found guilty in October of violating the civil rights of Hispanics and two others pleaded guilty earlier to reduced charges.
"Even with all the stuff East Haven has done with racial profiling, they've never paid any significant financial price for the way in which they do business," said Stratton. "I think this is the first time."•